Short-handed poker, “P” people, plus hold ’em misery

This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.

As many of you know, I’m an advocate of short-handed poker. I think there’s much more skill involved and world-class players can gobble up the money much quicker than when dining at a full-handed table. You get to play more hands, your opponents have more chances to make mistakes against you, and so you capitalize much quicker. This isn’t a new concept with me, though. I talked about it in Poker Player newspaper nine years ago. Here is that column…

New deck …

You’re not supposed to win all the chips at the table every time you play, but you’re supposed to want them every time you play.

The shuffle …

If you don’t know how to play shorthanded, that’s sad. Let’s suppose you find yourself alone with two very weak opponents with stacks of chips. Once in a while I see an otherwise skilled player fall into such a situation and make a terrible mistake. This really happened …

“Floorman! Can you get us some players?” calls the skilled player, fright frosting his voice.

“Hang in there,” pleads the equally concerned floorperson. “I’ll bring you some props.”

Ah, yes, we don’t call ’em shills in Los Angeles. They’re paid poker persons. Proposition players. The “P” people. Props! They’re mostly my friends, cheerful, more intelligent-on average-than your everyday citizen. At a nearly full table, a tight prop is a typically invisible thing. We’re dealing with a person who can be talked to and giggled with and trusted not to do much damage. On the other hand, a prop with a gift for gamble is just one of the guys. He or she may pummel the bad players and mix it up pretty good with the pros.

That’s because a prop is a professional. A “pro” with a “p” pasted to the end for no apparent reason. It spell “prop” People. Anyway, props are just fine with me. It isn’t that I don’t love to be around them. I even love their families and I don’t mind playing with them. But, you know me. I prefer shorthanded poker to Disneyland. So, it’s hard to convince me that when I’m in a three-handed poker game against two weak opponents with lots of luscious chips that I need any P-people.

The deal …

Anyway, in the previous real-life example, when the skilled player urges the floorman to supply props for the three-handed game, both opponents mildly protest.

Says one: “Here goes the game. I hate playing with props. They don’t give you no action.”

Says the other one: “Some of ’em are okay, but I don’t see why they have to stick ’em in this game. I was just starting’ to have fun!”

Result. both weak players go broke, losing a total of $1,400. As close as I can tell, prop wins $850, skilled player wins $450. About $100 goes to the dealers and to the house.

The flop …

Since it’s easy to get all the chips at the table short-handed, you should never go out of your way to add capable players to your game when you’re isolated against just a few opponents. If you fear your game might break, try a little psychological manipulation of your opponents.

Words like these work wonders: “This is a great game. I’m having a great time. Don’t you wish there was a way we could keep other players from sitting down?” Usually, your opponents will agree. They certainly won’t call for a prop now, because that would be rude after what you just said. It generally helps to add a little extra: “I just love the action you get in these shorthanded games. Don’t you think they should have special tables for players like us who like poker short-handed?” More often than not, your opponents will agree that there should be such tables.

Fourth street …

Both of them may keep agreeing until somebody runs out of chips. Then you’ll only have one opponent to voice agreement on how great short-handed really is. Make sure you keep reminding the survivor just how exciting head-to-head poker can be. You might say, “Don’t you agree this is a lot better than it was three handed?”

The river …

You can thrive on short-handed poker, because you focus all your mental energy on just one or two opponents. Sometimes you really will win all the money at the table. And when you take that last chip, be sure to congratulate your foe on a game well played. Say, “Let’s do it again sometime. I really enjoyed it!” And mean what you say. That’s poker politics. End of that column. But another one I wrote at just about the same time deals with hold ’em flops and the misery index I’ve talked to you about many times. I hope you find it profitable…


Good afternoon. Do hold ’em beginners fail to appreciate the difference between big-pair starting hands and small-pair starting hands? Yes. They fail to appreciate. Do hold ’em beginners fall in love with medium-pair starting hands? You bet. They fall in love.

Is it a fact, Mad Genius, that hold ’em beginners unwisely favor insignificant pairs over high non-paired cards as starting hands? Sure. They unwisely favor them. And will hold ’em beginners be battered brutally forever and ever because of these unfortunate misconceptions? Yep. They will be battered.

You and I know that a pair of aces is awesome and a pair of deuces is disastrous. Well, that isn’t always true, is it? In rare situations a pair of deuces isn’t quite so bad. If you’re playing against just one opponent, then a pair of deuces can almost hold its own against ace-king. Unfortunately, in the real world, against a table full of players, the ace-king triumphs. And it isn’t close. And we know it. And universal justice includes no mercy for those who do not know it.

Before you invest

Still, it’s interesting to know what your chances are of liking a flop when you invest money on various pairs. It’s hard to define a general set of rules for whether or not you like the flop. Suppose you have A-A and the flop is A-K-K. Looks like a great happenstance, but are you perfectly safe? Obviously, a pair of kings is held by any opponent will make you miserable. How likely is it that an opponent holds both remaining kings? Depends. If you bet and he passes, there’s no chance whatsoever. If he didn’t raise before the flop, kings would usually be less likely (although some tricky opponents exactly the opposite is true). We can make powerful and profitable estimates about what opponents hold, but we can seldom know for sure.

But this we can calculate, this is what we know for sure: If we don’t take previous events into consideration and include only our pair of aces and the flop in our appraisal, then the odds are 11-1 against any opponent holding one king and something else. And the odds are 1080-1 against him holding both kings.

The misery index

That’s interesting, but not especially useful. Maybe the following will help you know how often to expect an unfavorable flop. It tells you how frequently the flop will not provide you with at least one more of your rank (thus making three-of-a-kind or rarely four-of-a-kind) AND the flop will contain at least one card higher than your pair. Based on that simplistic assumption, this is the “Misery Index” taken from my Professional Hold ’em Report …

Starting Pair Misery Index After Flop

2-2 88.24%
3-3 88.22%
4-4 87.96%
5-5 87.12%
6-6 85.39 %
7-7 82.43%
8-8 77.92%
9-9 71.53%
10-10 62.94%
J-J 51.82%
Q-Q 37.84%
K-K 20.67%
A-A 0.000%


This table was corrected for this and one other P1 entry on 2013-11-05, prior to the official opening.

Bill Handy, my colleague in creating Caro Online Poker Solutions (COPS) to prevent online poker cheating, pointed out the mistakes. Strangely, I cited my own Professional Hold ’em Report as the source — and it was correct!

Somehow I or an associate jumbled the numbers, I badly recalculated the table (extremely unlikely), or something else weird happened. Mystery unsolved.

If you’re curious, K-K was previously listed as having an 11.67% chance of misery (instead of 20.67%, as shown). And entries for 4-4 through
Q-Q were also wrong!

As proof that I was quoting the right source (my own), here is a photo of my table, as published in 1988. Go figure!

This serves of an example of why we ask visitors to point out glitches in the thousands of entries at Poker1. Some have been hastily reformatted and uploaded.

If you see any inaccuracies, typos, misspellings, grammatical errors, or other glitches, please report them using the contact link at the bottom of all P1 pages. — MC

While this chart is deliberately elementary and ignores many concepts critical to professional hold ’em, it nonetheless illustrates a profound truth. There isn’t nearly as much difference between low ranks as there is between high ranks. Look at it this way. A pair of kings is much better than a pair of queens (and they’re only one rank away from each other), but there’s a much less dramatic difference between a pair of sevens and a pair of deuces (five ranks apart). Also, notice that, based on the simple premise, you’re probably going to hate the flop unless you hold at least a pair of jacks. Good night. — MC

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Mike Caro

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Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.


2 thoughts on “Short-handed poker, “P” people, plus hold ’em misery”

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  1. Why do we see the professional players “not all but most” routinely call raises sometimes large ones with small and medium pairs. Maybe because they are on TV and having a FPS attack or is it advertising for the games that are not televised. Possibly way over my level of thinking but don’t think so ….. keeping it simple.

  2. Love the bottom section of this article. Gives some good perpective, especially the closing sentence. 

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